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Review: Dragon Age II

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I fought scoundrels in the streets at night. I stood up to dauntless Qunari soldiers, and probed the depths of a long sealed dwarven stronghold. I chose to love an elf cast out of her home, doomed to fulfill a prophecy that would doom us all. I did it all in about 25 hours, all said and done...and I did it all mashing my "A" button constantly.

I conquered Dragon Age: II on the Xbox 360, and this is my review.

Dragon Age: II is Bioware's sequel to their new fantasy RPG franchise opener: Dragon Age: Origins. The game takes place across the ocean from the original setting of Ferelden in the Free Marches, a region of city states. More specifically, the game centers itself firmly in Kirkwall, City of Chains. Starting as a lowly refugee you carve a name for yourself into the history of the city, eventually helping orchestrate some of Kirkwall's most radical evolutions all within a game spanning ten years of your character's life. You meet many companions on the way who have complex and conflicting morals at times, and with their help you fight in the midst of a struggle between the oppressed Circle of Mages, a group of alienated Qunari warriors, and the overbearing, magic-fearing Templar Order.

So that's why we're here. Here's how it went down.

Manipulating a character in the world of Thedas was a bit of a chore in Dragon Age: Origins for the consoles. So much so, that I bought and played the game for the PC soon after. Dragon Age: Origins promised a return to the good old days of PC RPGs and it delivered! Gorgeous graphics, classic interface, incredible spikes in difficulty, romance options...but the attempt to port the game to the consoles had noticeably negative effects on the game; It made the game a little duller looking, and a beast to control. The Pause-And-Go mouse and keyboard game play that is beloved on the PC just didn't work out as elegantly with dual analog sticks and face buttons in my opinion. It was the biggest hurdle between me and Dragon Age: Origins on the consoles, so when I went into Dragon Age II for the consoles (my home PC, right now, would probably commit seppuku if I attempted to run much than Chrome) I had some trepidation. I am delighted to say all my fears were laid to rest, only to be replaced by a new demon, the 'A' Button.

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Dragon Age II's controls on the console are a drastic improvement from the previous game. Running around, choosing which enemy to aim at with the D-pad, activating spells and talents with the face buttons, the revamped pause menu and streamlined conversation trees all feel amazing in your hands. You feel a direct connection to the action, akin to that of another of Bioware's console RPGs, Mass Effect (a game with no melee weapons besides a gruesome punch). The lessons learned improving their other current console RPG was applied liberally to Dragon Age II. As a warrior my Hawke was a beast. It felt as though I was playing a Berserk video game, simply destroying smaller enemies and spending long minutes whittling down the tougher bosses. Leveling up earns you points to spend on your very tabletop RPG-esque attribute sheet, and some points to buy spells and talents with. The system will feel familiar to all who've played an RPG within the past 20 years, and left me no shortage of options to define my warrior Hawke. With the Black Emporium DLC you can purchase an item that will let you respec your character's attributes and abilities anytime. This came in handy more times than I anticipated, and is a welcome gesture in a game with so many choices to make. Whatever people's complaints about Dragon Age II, it certainly didn't feel like Dragon Age: Origins to me...and that was a major plus from the start. But the thorn in my heel was this: Bioware set out to make a console RPG with more action-oriented game play, but left out all the meat you get with action on the consoles (Heavy vs. Weak attacks, dodging, blocking, weapon load-outs). Without an auto-attack feature you spend most of your time pressing the "A" button between talents and spells to sling your weapon/staff over and over again.This leaves the combat feeling stiff, almost archaic and unresponsive at times, but the limitations of the rest of Dragon Age's game play necessitate it. It still wants to be a PC RPG at heart, and it'll have to give up that ghost if it wants to make an equal splash on the consoles.

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The game is gorgeous, to a point. Starting with the obvious, Bioware has managed again to develop a setting that feels unique, with lore covering every nook and cranny, every question you'd want answered. While most of the game is confined to Kirkwall, you begin to develop a connection to the city that, by the end of the game, has you honestly feeling familiar with the landscape. Unlike games that drop you in exotic locales with very little to them Kirkwall feels sizable and coherent. Each district has a distinct feel to it, with everything colorful decorations draped over the centuries old marble to dirty corners with broken crates and a few discarded bones. The character designs suffer from Bioware Budget (When the NPCs all are the same height...and weight...and no one has any physics...not even Isabella), but it's to be expected from a game with 25+ hours of story to cover, full voice acting and some truly entertaining dialogue. (Pro Tip: Look closely to see some Mass Effect animations in the dialog. It's kinda fun to spot 'em.) The music is suitably epic, rising with the action and underscoring the setting with aplomb. Ultimately, the graphics and sound of the game come together to weave a rich picture of a city in crisis.

There are a handful of missions that have you leaving the city walls to adventure in the countryside, but because the navigation is all menu based all you really feel like you're doing is encouraging another loading screen to appear. There are some missions that have you stopping just to investigate or talk to an NPC, only to have you leave and return again at night (which involves you leaving the area by running to an exit, changing the game from day to night, then re-selecting the region you just left, and running back to the quest giver). Some missions are given when you pick up random junk from a corpse, or a chest on the road and then completed with just as little fan fare when you turn them in. The only other mar on the surface is the awful inventory. There's so much random junk you accrue that it gets its own page of the inventory, earning you little and taking up space. I changed weapons maybe twice during the entire run, not needing a more powerful sword and not being able to use the DLC armor till about mid-game. And it was because all the weapons I was getting in drops were low quality, or useless to anyone in my party. It feels like a fossil of an item system: dropping tons of random and sometimes completely worth/useless crap, refusing your desires to sort items and weapons by various parameters and involving some hard to follow User Interface design choices that left me stumbling through it at times. Add to the fact that most of the armor in the game is only for Hawke, and there's almost no way to tell it apart from companion gear without selecting it individually. It's tedious at worst though, and the main quest missions are very adequate and challenging with the act ending mission arcs in particular standing alongside memorable moments from any great D&D campaign.

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A review of Dragon Age: II wouldn't be complete without spilling the beans on the romance, a staple of the Bioware modus operandi. So needless to say, Set a course for Spoilers, although I only did one romance option and will try my best to be discreet, I promise. During my first play through I was pleasantly surprised by the openness of the characters to romance in the game. Anders makes passes at Hawke, Merrill is delightfully flustered by it all and Isabella well...I don't rut and tell. There was a reason to explore every option at first, discussing characters wants and desires, needs in their life. Ultimately I choose to romance Merrill; her plight had my Hawke sympathizing at first, then completely siding with her desire to give her clan its old foundations back. The romance was fast but there was a conversation regarding living arrangement that had me laughing and seriously pondering my responses. I flirted with Fenris a little before choosing Merrill, and the dialog for a homosexual relationship was well written, with flirtatious jokes and genuine admiration and attraction coming across. The character chemistry was very tastefully handled for all romance options. And I am going to mention this thread, which is a direct response from David Gaiter (Lead Writer of the Dragon Age series) to a fan regarding the relationships in Dragon Age: II. It's an amazingly good read that settles the issue: this game was made by good men and women, with open minds and hearts. However...

Since Mass Effect 2 the companion system has been a little too transparent for my tastes. I could see that each time there was a time jump in the game I was supposed to go check in on my companions, see how they were doing, have one little conversation and move right along. It's too easy to see exactly when your companions will 1) Need to talk to you because they 2) Have something for you to do before they 3) Are ready to lay down their loyalty/hop in bed. It was nice when sometimes I'd get home and there'd be Isabella or Aveline waiting with the beginning of a quest or a quick conversation...but it rarely happened. The companions could feel a lot more... active, then they currently do. It just feels like you're looking at a big wall of them, picking which ones you actually give a damn about and ignoring the rest for the entire game, while sometimes deciding to ignore them all to just follow the main quest. I'd rather have a new, cool companion for part of a game, or introduce them all slowly over the course of the game, than get them all in one nearly fell swoop and worry about running around to each-and-every-one-of-their-houses. But when it works, it shines. Companions' interactions amongst themselves are way up, I never re-heard a conversation during the 25 hour game. Despite the well touted, always enjoyable romance and companion system being in every new Bioware game, it could use some asymmetry to help keep my in game life feeling fresh. The decision to use the dialog system made popular in Mass Effect (the "wheel" of choices) has been not only brought into Dragon Age but expanded upon, with icons representing the overall tone of the response helping players understand what they're about to have Hawke say. I didn't mind the departure from the silent hero with fully realized lines of dialog for me to read. Sometimes the game will hide the dialog icons and I found that made those choices all the more important. Bioware defined the pace of a console RPG by creating a system for player/character interaction that really livens the pace and immersion of the game, so why not use it here? And use it to great effect no less. Hawke may tend towards snarky when not under player control, but Hawke's clipped English voice and winning arch-personality harken me back to our old friend Commander Shepard, Sci-Fi Hero extraordinaire, for that confidence and timbre in his words giving even me, the player, faith in his promises.

Dragon Age: II is a genuinely good game. Fun enough to convince me to give Dragon Age: Origins another shot on consoles just to get my imported character going before the inevitable sequel gets announced. I'm convinced enough to play the game again, and I'm on board with the story enough to anticipate the next installment with bated breath. Bioware once again show they can learn from their own mistakes, and it feels like Dragon Age II's post-release will be rich. The dueling trilogies only have to come to a close now, and Dragon Age II stands strong as one of the most entertaining fantasy experiences on the market today.

The author bought and played a personal copy of Dragon Age II for the Xbox 360 with the Black Emporium and The Exiled Prince DLC. He beat the game once in 25 hours, doing all of two companions quest lines and the entire main quest with a new Warrior class character.

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